Monday, February 13, 2012

Making your own bread

In Grahamstown, we have our very own artisanal baker, who shows up at markets and whose bread is available at a couple of places around town, including Lungi’s farm stall in the Peppergrove mall.

But what if you miss out, or it’s one of those bad days when baking doesn’t go to plan?

Making your own bread is really easy if you use a good flour and the right technique. Sourdough is much harder; you can get good results using commercial dry yeast.

Here are a few hints:
  • slow is good: don’t believe claims that you should hasten the activation of the yeast
  • thorough mixing is the key; kneading is less essential than you’ve been lead to believe (it can’t hurt, but it’s a pain when you are making a sticky dough as in brown or ciabatta loaf)
  • good fresh ingredients make a big difference
  • brown or whole wheat needs  a wetter mix than white
So here’s how I make a good loaf out of stone-ground brown bread flour.
  • 500g flour
  • 5g dry yeast (half a sachet)
  • 400ml water

Mix the yeast into the flour thoroughly, add the water and stir vigorously until the ingredients form a smooth dough.

Leave the dough in a cool place until the dough has at least doubled in bulk. On a coolish summer day, I leave it most of the day (about 8 hours). Stir vigorously again, knocking out all the gas. Now grease a bread pan (I use butter; a fraction of a gram per slice will not kill you and it works well), and add in the dough. Leave it in a cool place to rise until it’s about doubled in bulk (3-4 hours, but the time will vary depending on the temperature). Bread made this way is not going to rise much in the oven, so don’t bake until it’s close to its final size.

Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes. Test the bread by tapping on it: if it sounds hollow, it’s done. You can also do a skewer test: the skewer can be a little sticky but not very sticky when you pull it out. When done, wrap the bread in a slightly damp towel if you don’t like a hard crust, otherwise let it cool on a wire rack.

Here’s the end result. Did I hear someone say a gas oven is no good?
You may have noticed I cook without salt. Salt is over-used in cooking and most people are de-sensitised to excessive salt. Get used to less salt and your sense of taste develops a new range. And you are less likely to develop high blood pressure.

If you choose to add salt, add it well separated from the yeast before mixing the dry ingredients. Salt kills yeast.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cooking with gas

With all the protests against fracking, it's easy to get the idea that cooking with gas is bad. First, most household gas in South Africa is liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is not produced using fracking. Second, in the long term, we should be looking at biogas as an option for cooking. Why? Because electrical ways of producing heat are wasteful. For heating water or heating the air in winter, you can use a heat pump, but for concentrated heat for cooking, a heat pump is way too slow.

Back to fracking: it’s idiotic to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the last drop of fossil fuels. They will run out anyway, and climate science indicates a need to look at alternatives. So why try to extract gas from environmentally sensitive water-poor land with technology that carries serious risks?

Some people are  pushing induction cookers as an alternative, citing numbers that show them to be by far the most efficient form of cooking. These numbers are a bit misleading because they don’t take into account the extremely low efficiency of coal power generation, by far the most common source of electricity in South Africa. A typical coal power station has an efficiency of around 30%, and you lose about 10% more in power transmission, so you have to start counting the energy efficiency at your stove at about 27% (not taking into account the energy cost of mining and transporting the coal, but gas also has a production and transport cost we are not taking into account).

LPG is a very efficient fuel if we must burn something to make heat. However, if you buy an LPG stove, take care to get one that can be rejetted for natural gas, since biogas is closer to natural gas. LPG sold in South Africa is a mix of propane and butane, and has a very high energy density, higher than natural gas, which is mostly methane. Natural gas and LPG are fossil fuels, and switching to a more efficient one is only a step: we should ultimately aim to stop burning all fossil fuels. In the meantime, though, LPG is a better alternative than a wasteful electric stove.

If you are buying a gas stove, what should you look for?

First, quality materials. Look for cast-iron pot stands. The kind that look like plastic-coated wire don't last long. A stainless steel outer case is good, though no substitute for quality working parts. Ask a person who repairs appliances (ideally someone who doesn’t sell new ones) which brands have best after-sales service, parts availability and general reliability.

Now the critical question: how well does a gas stove work? Many people will tell you that they are great for stove-top burners, with their near-instant heat adjustment, but a gas oven is no good. I’ve previously had a gas stove nearly 100 years old with a very good oven, so it really depends on how well the stove is designed. My shiny new stove has a gas oven, and I’ll report results here shortly (see a hint in the picture).

Watch this space.